George Parker: After this Brexit madness, will things ever be the same again?

Posted On: 
15th March 2019

Once they have been broken, Parliament’s conventions will be hard to repair. But what is happening now is extreme politics, and the madness will eventually pass, writes George Parker

Pro- and anti-Brexit protesters outside Parliament this week
Credit: 
PA

This is not normal, as my esteemed Times colleague Matt Chorley would say. After a week that saw political conventions at Westminster not so much breached as ripped up and thrown in the bin, questions are being raised about when – or if – normal will return.

When I started reporting at Westminster back in the 1990s, I imagined I would never witness again the kind of drama in the House of Commons associated with the downfall of Margaret Thatcher and the Maastricht rebellions, but Brexit proved me wrong.

We all know how Brexit has fractured political parties and turned former party colleagues into ideological enemies, but this week proved again that normal conventions at Westminster no longer apply.

Take Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, who wound up Thursday’s Commons debate proposing an extension to the Article 50 exit process with the words: “It is time to put forward an extension that is realistic. I commend the government motion to the House.” He then voted against the motion.

OK, it was a free vote – Mrs May knew her party would split on the issue anyway – but can anybody remember a minister urging MPs to vote for a government motion, only to vote against it a few minutes later?

Or what about the four Europhile cabinet ministers who defied a three-line whip on Wednesday to vote to take a no deal exit off the table for good? To the anger of their pro-Brexit colleagues, they got off with a ticking off from the prime minister and a furious chief whip Julian Smith.

“Collective responsibility has disintegrated – you might as well tell the whips to pack up and go home,” said Mark Francois, the unofficial chief whip for the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group. “The government is barely in office.”

Then there is Mrs May’s decision to come back to the House of Commons on March 29 with what will be – presumably – a pretty-much-identical version of the Brexit deal that has already been rejected twice by MPs, stretching parliamentary convention to say the least.

“There is something called the ‘same question’ issue, which is where you can’t put exactly the same wording to the House in the same session multiple times,” confirmed Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader. Presumably some way will be found around this little problem.

Will things ever be the same again? In the midst of this Brexit-related chaos at Westminster – which incidentally has at least raised the viewing figures of BBC Parliament considerably – people are speculating that once they have been broken, Westminster conventions will be hard to repair.

I’m not so sure. The reason why ministers are expected to vote for motions they recommend to the House, for the whipping system and for the rule that prime ministers cannot keep asking the same question over and over again is simple: it makes for orderly government.

We have to recognise that what is happening now is extreme politics. Brexit is the most divisive political issue in a generation, made even more impossible to manage by the fact that David Cameron disastrously allowed the “will of the people” to trump our representative democracy.

Added to which you have a prime minister who threw away her Commons majority, leaving parliament in a state of near anarchy. But will it last?

For what it is worth, I think Mrs May will eventually bludgeon her Brexit deal through the Commons and that most of her critics will eventually fold rather than risk their Brexit project being delayed or even scrapped altogether.

What will Westminster feel like the morning after the deal goes through? Very different I suspect. The Brexit madness of the last two years which has become the new normal may revert to the old normal more quickly than one might expect.

There may be a clamour in the Tory party for an immediate change of leader and a renewed bout of infighting along European lines, but I get the sense that for many Conservatives there is a yearning for a bit of peace and quiet. They, and the country, may have had just about enough excitement for now.

George Parker is Political Editor of the Financial Times